(UPDATED SATURDAY, JUNE 18 / 5:30 p.m. PDT)
This was supposed to be a big year for Yellowstone National Park. Thousands of eager travelers were already poised at the gates when America’s First National Park opened for business on April 15 in anticipation of its 150th anniversary year.
Everything was going according to plan through May and early June, as jubilant tourists from throughout the world flooded through park gates. Then came floods of a different kind.
This week, the crown jewel of America’s National Park System is out of business. Heavy rains coupled with high temps that rapidly melted mountain snowpacks caused the park’s streams and rivers to overflow, devastating many roads and turning bridges into floating debris.
Thousands of park visitors were hustled out the now-closed gates of the park. Many more were airlifted by rescue helicopters from the most precarious locations.
Future for Yellowstone National Park unclear
At this point, it is unclear what the future holds for the park. Roads in the park were never in the greatest of shape, even before this disaster. Construction seasons in Yellowstone are extremely short, and just repairing the innumerable annual potholes was a major endeavor. It’s hard to imagine how crews will handle the replacement or rerouting of entire roadways that have been swept away.
I spent the better part of 40 years living in Billings, Montana, known as the gateway to Yellowstone. I was just back for a visit three weeks ago, and area residents were gearing up for another record-breaking summer tourism season for the Greater Yellowstone Region.
Of course, that’s all impossible now. At this writing, all park entrances remain closed. Iconic features such as Old Faithful are left to spout their wonders without an audience. Other rivers in the area, including the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone as well as the Stillwater River, also were well over their banks early in the week, but have since receded after causing substantial damage.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said Wednesday that it is “probable” that large sections of roads in northern parts of Yellowstone will not reopen this season and might remain closed for a “substantial length of time.”
South section of park to reopen Wednesday
Park officials said Saturday, June 18, that the south loop of Yellowstone will reopen at 8 a.m. MDT Wednesday, June 22. The south loop can be accessed from park entrances from the east (Cody, Wyoming), the west (West Yellowstone, Montana), and the south (Grand Teton/Jackson, Wyoming).
Reopening the southern loop will give tourists access to Madison, Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village and Norris.
It isn’t clear how they plan to handle potential “whole park” crowds with only half of the park available. Tour outfitters have been told that they will continue to have access to the park’s open sections.
Sholly said the park’s north entrance at Gardiner, Montana, and the northeast entrance at Silver Gate, Montana, will remain closed at least for the remainder of the 2022 summer season.
To balance demand for access to the park, the park will institute an interim visitor access plan to ensure the south loop does not become overwhelmed with visitors.
Here are the details of the plan:
- Public vehicle entry will be allowed based on whether the last numerical digit on a license plate is odd or even.
- Entrance will be granted based on odd/even days on the calendar.
- Personalized plates (all letters, for example YLWSTNE) will fall into the “odd” category for entrance purposes.
- Plates with a mix of letters and numbers but that end with a letter (for example YELL4EVR) will still use the last numerical digit on the plate to determine entrance days.
- Entrance station staff will turn away vehicles attempting to enter the park when the odd/even numerical digits do not correspond to the odd/even calendar date for entrance.
- Odd-numbered last digits on license plates can enter on odd days of the month.
- Even-numbered last digits (including zero) on license plates can enter on even days of the month.
And here are some exceptions:
- Current commercial use operators with active commercial use permits will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number. This includes commercial tours and stock groups.
- Visitors with proof of overnight reservations in the park will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number. This includes hotels, campgrounds, and backcountry reservations.
- Commercial motor coaches will be permitted to enter regardless of license plate number.
- Motorcycle groups may enter on even dates only.
- Essential services like mail and delivery, employees and contractors may enter regardless of license plate number.
Here’s what open starting June 22:
- Backcountry areas accessible from roads open to the public will be available/restricted for day use only.
- Old Faithful [nps.gov], West Thumb, Grant Village [nps.gov], Bridge Bay, Fishing Bridge, Lake Village [nps.gov], and Norris [nps.gov] visitor services
- West Yellowstone Visitor Information Center [nps.gov]
- Canyon Village Visitor Education Center
Overnight use from trailheads in the south will open July 1.
Visit Camp in Backcountry [nps.gov] for details.
And here’s what remains closed in the south loop:
- Canyon Village Lodges and Cabins
- Canyon [nps.gov], Madison [nps.gov], Norris [nps.gov] and Lewis Lake [nps.gov] campgrounds
- Fishing Bridge Visitor Center and Trailside Museum [nps.gov]
Yellowstone staff are working to determine what other potential sections of the park may be reopened prior to roads closing Nov. 1. Decisions will depend on extent of damage and the ability of park managers to safely open additional sections as the year progresses. Park managers are evaluating plans to reopen roads connecting Canyon Village, Tower Junction, Mammoth Hot Spring and Norris; however, this will not happen initially. The park is also working to reconnect Mammoth Hot Springs to Gardiner and Cooke City/Silver Gate as soon as possible with temporary solutions, while long-term reconstruction is planned.
Known damage (at this time) to some park roads includes:
- North Entrance (Gardiner, Montana) to Mammoth Hot Springs: Road washed out in multiple places, significant rockslide at Gardner Canyon
- Tower Junction to Northeast Entrance: Segment of road washed out near Soda Butte Picnic Area, mudslides, downed trees
- Tower-Roosevelt to Canyon Junction (Dunraven Pass): Mudslide on road
- Canyon Junction to Fishing Bridge: Segment of road just south of Canyon Junction potentially compromised and closed for evaluation
- The power is still out in numerous locations in the park
- Water and wastewater systems at Canyon Village and Mammoth Hot Springs have been affected by flooding and are being monitored
Shattered vacation plans
Undoubtedly, there are families throughout America and around the world that are lamenting the loss of their “once in a lifetime” Yellowstone vacation. Some might be able to salvage some vestige of the American West by visiting the numerous state parks surrounding Yellowstone that are still open for business. But even that could be a challenge for most RVers who could find it far too late in the reservations game to find a spot.
Also, let’s keep in mind the campgrounds and other local businesses surrounding the park that have suddenly lost their summer season. Some business owners may not be able to weather this storm even if the National Park Service, through some herculean effort, is able to partially open the southernmost loops of the park roads.
Right now, the town of Gardiner just outside the park’s north gate is essentially an island. Only a temporary road open to residents leads in and out of town. Large sections of the former main road (Highway 89) through the narrow Yankee Jim Canyon don’t even exist anymore.
Yellowstone has a history of coming back from adversity
I originally arrived in Montana just before the devastating Yellowstone Fires of 1988. I saw firsthand that mankind was no match for nature’s fury in this wild region. Now the park is again faced with what seems right now to be an insurmountable challenge. It’s going to take time and billions of dollars to make things right again.
Maybe Mother Nature is trying to tell us something. Maybe this 150th anniversary of the park is the year we give Yellowstone its own birthday present by giving it the time it needs to recover yet again from a natural disaster.
No doubt the bears, bison, and elk will appreciate a break, too.
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